Seasonal milking sure isn’t common in Canada, and it’s limited in the United States, but in some European countries, it’s not just common, it’s a key part of their culture.
Marion Studhalter, who normally calls Ontario home, spent the summer making cheese in the Alps. The production system she was a part of is rather unique compared to how we raise cattle here in Canada in that the entire system is seasonal — and mobile.
With two staff in the cheesiry, one handling marketing and two looking after the cows, this small milking team begins the milking season with about 150 Swiss Brown cows. The cows are moved up the mountain as the grass be comes more abundant at higher altitudes. Milking is done in a sturdily-built but completely mobile parlour, and the milk is sent back down the mountain in a gravity-fed pipeline.
There are Holstein cows in other parts of Switzerland that are milked year round, but these Swiss cows that travel up the mountain are specifically selected for their rich milk, and ability to thrive and produce on seasonal grass. As the cows move up the mountain, some cows dry off or significantly decrease production so they are brought back down off the mountain. This means the herd ends up at about half the size of when it started.
Studhalter says it was very interesting to learn about cheese making and dairying in this way. Because cheese is the main use of the milk, the cows can’t be fed any ensiled feed. Whatever grows on the mountain is what they eat.
2018 was a very dry year for the area, and so the cows came back down the mountain about 10 days sooner than average. When the grass runs out, so does the milk, she says. The day the cows come down is a celebration, and coincides with a religious holiday in the area.
To cap it off, Studhalter says their small cheese-making team won a bronze medal in a European cheese competition dubbed the Olympics of cheese making.
Studhalter joined Lyndsey Smith on Wednesday’s edition of RealAg Radio to share her experience living and making cheese in the Swiss Alps. Hear that interview, below: